American chess has arguably never had it so good. In Fabiano Caruna, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, they have three top 10 players and a potential Olympiad gold-winning team in Baku in the summer. And bankrolling and backing this new American chess renaissance has been billionaire Maecenas Rex Sinquefield with the help of none other than Garry Kasparov.
And if being the top three finishers in the recent US Chess Championship wasn’t enough of a reward for Caruana, Nakamura and So, they had the added lure of being invited to play alongside Kasparov in the exclusive Ultimate Blitz Challenge hosted at Sinquefield’s Chess Club and Scholastic Center in St. Louis, which had an additional prize fund of $50,000 on top of what they earned at the US Championship!
The event was easily the strongest blitz tournament ever to be held in the US - and the addition of Kasparov, who retired from active chess in 2005, proved he still had the pulling power with the fans as it drew a large online audience who watched his comeback throughout the two days of the competition. Kasparov may have had the pulling power with the fans, but did he still have the pulling power where it counted over the board when facing three of the world’s best players at the top of their game?
And at 53 now, and inactive, the answer seemed to be ‘Yes’, as Kasparov fought valiantly throughout and several times he had all three on the ropes. In the end, though, the title went - as many predicted - to speed-king Nakamura, who top-scored with 11/18 to take the first prize of $20,000; So second on 10-points, taking $15,000; Kasparov, a creditable third on 9.5-points, taking $10,000 (which he magnanimously donated to the U.S. Olympiad squad); and last but not least the newly-minted US Champion Caruana, who was fourth on 5.5-points, taking $5,000.
However Kasparov was involved in a truly spectacular game that is now being hailed by pundits and fans alike as “The Immortal Blitz Game”, making a comparison with the original Immortal Game played in London in 1851 when Adolf Anderssen sensationally defeated Lionel Kieseritsky - only with Kasparov playing the part of Kieseritzky!
But Kasparov seems to have mellowed in retirement. Even after losing in such spectacular style, Kasparov immediately heaped praise on So by making a comparison to another 19th century maestro, by tweeting: “My game against Wesley reminded me of a game of Morphy vs an amateur...I was the amateur.”
Photo © | Lennart Ootes for US Championship
GM Wesley So - GM Garry Kasparov
Ultimate Blitz Challenge, (10)
1.Nf3 g6 2.e4 Bg7 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Bg4 This is a line that works best if White plays Nc3, as it allows Black the ideal set-up of playing ...Nc6, ...Bxf3 and ...e5. However, without Nc3, it is not so effective. 5.Be2 Nc6 6.Nbd2 Indirectly defending d4, and at the same time developing the knight without going to c3. 6...e5 7.d5 Now we see the difference: Black no longer can play ...Bxf3 as White has Nxf3 preventing the Black knight having the d4 outpost. 7...Nce7 8.h3 Bd7 9.c5! Kasparov has to accept this pawn sacrifice, otherwise he'll be handicapped by the fact that he can't arrange a King's Indian/Modern Defence set-up with ...f5, as White has cxd6 and Nc4 hitting d6. 9...dxc5 10.Nc4 f6 11.d6! With Black's pieces being awkwardly placed, So goes straight for the jugular by blowing the position open. 11...Nc8 12.Be3 b6 13.0-0 Bc6 14.dxc7 Qxc7 15.b4! So doesn't give Kasparov a chance to consolidate - again, he's opening up lines as quickly and as best he can. 15...cxb4? Ultimately the losing move. Obviously bad was 15...Bxe4?! 16.bxc5 bxc5 17.Qa4+ Bc6 18.Qa3 where c5 is weak and falling, and Black will soon get caught in all the open lines again when the rooks come to c1 and d1 - and Black still hasn't castled. It therefore looks like Kasparov's only hope of survival - according to the playing engines - was going with 15...b5!? 16.Na5 c4 17.a4 a6 and taking his chances here. The engines think it is playable, but human instincts is yelling “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” much like Robbie the Robot, as Black has a lot of open lines still to plug - but it isn't anywhere near the disaster Kasparov falls into. Well, blitz is blitz - anyone can lose in dramatic fashion as Kasparov does now. 16.Rc1 Nge7 17.Qb3 Not only preventing Kasparov from castling, it also vacates d1 for So's rook to come to d1 as the pressure mounts even further for Kasparov. 17...h6 18.Rfd1 b5 Kasparov forces So to make the sacrifice on e5, as he's run out of options of moves he can make without a greater disaster. If 18...a5 19.Nxb6!! Nxb6 20.Bb5 Rc8 21.Qe6! Black is in dire straits with all the pins and his king also in danger. 19.Ncxe5!! (See Diagram)This piece sacrifice was shouting out to be played, as it takes full advantage of Kasparov's king caught in the middle and all the pins and central threats from So's wonderfully placed rooks and bishops. 19...fxe5 20.Bxb5 Rb8 21.Ba4! Often it is the quiet moves that are the killers in chess. Here, So casually retreats the bishop from threats from the rook, and at the same time he keeps the pressure on Kasparov - and this is doubly dangerous in blitz, as Kasparov has to think rather than react here. 21...Qb7? Kasparov is totally lost here - but in blitz, with flags hanging and thinking dangerous for your clock, prolonging the game can sometimes salvage the most unlikeliest positions. And here, the engine suggest longer survival can be achieved with 21...a6 22.Qe6 Rb5 23.Bxb5 axb5 24.Bxh6 Bxh6 (Not 24...Rxh6? 25.Ng5 mates quickly.) 25.Nxe5 Bd5!? Of course, even here Black is lost - but it is the best practical chance in blitz, as the game is far from over here with all the complications now on the board. 22.Rxc6!! Deadly, and almost instant with it. 22...Nxc6 23.Qe6+ N8e7 24.Bc5! Another pin seals the deal for So - Kasparov is now left paralysed and at his opponent's mercy. 24...Rc8 25.Bxe7 1-0 After 25…Qxe7 Kasparov gets mated after 26.Qxc8+ Kf7 27.Bb3+ Kf6 28.Qxc6+ Qd6 29.Qxd6 mate. A wonderful game from Wesley So - and one destined for the anthologies!